Monthly Archives: January 2004

I will not object to writing lines. I will not object to writing lines.

The February 2nd issue of Maclean’s pours scorn on the concept of forcing students to write the same thing over and over again as a punishment. So, while its editors are writing “We will not put fictitious future dates on our publication” 100 times, allow me to explain why they are wrong.

Maclean’s “ScoreCard” praised “Donald Lucas: Gutsy Stirling, Ont. Grade 8er rebels at teacher’s order to write lines for not doing homework. Says tedious task ‘puts the mind into neutral.’ Instead, negotiates right to pen essay on the folly of writing lines. Smart kid, sure. Smart teacher, too.” And this very newspaper called his punishment “a mindless activity of repetition … not something a learning institution should be encouraging. A school, and a teacher, for that matter, should strive for knowledge.” They should. But knowledge comes in many forms and in many ways.

So let me tell you a tale. There was once this kid who spent years in a kind, nurturing school where they never made him do anything he didn’t want to do lest, say, correcting his spelling were to give him a low “self of steam.” If he disobeyed instructions he was rewarded with a really interesting assignment involving yet more impudence, and praised by the press. One day he graduated and got a job as an intern at a newspaper. But he was assigned a story he didn’t feel like doing. It would involve tedious phone calls and slogging around in bad weather talking to dull people with no post-graduate degrees at all. So he blew it off and, when reproached, sassed his editor. Continue reading

Stronach’s vacuity is not unique

It’s funny how Belinda Stronach’s entry into the Conservative Party of Canada leadership race fell flat. What’s wrong with a 314?

Huh? you say. Surely you know the one about the guy who visits his friend’s joke-lovers’ club and the members keep shouting out numbers and then everyone cracks up. His friend explains that they all know every joke so it’s more convenient just to number them. “Mind if I tell one?” he asks. His friend says “Sure,” so he shouts “314” but there’s dead silence. Then his friend explains “You didn’t tell it right.”

So there’s poor Ms. Stronach, fiscally conservative but socially liberal, relentlessly on-message, a personable outsider, and people accuse her of being shallow and clichéd. She’s also been accused of resorting to the gimmick of being a female kind of girl, so let’s deal with that one before baking a bigger pie of clichés. Continue reading

Please don’t hurt me, officer, I’m just writing a gardening column

You’ve got to hate it when 10 cops show up at your front door first thing in the morning and start rifling through your unmentionables looking for threats to national security. But it’s not going to happen to me, folks, ’cause I’m writing about daisies.

Yes, daisies. Aren’t they pretty? Bright yellow centres and nice white petals, unless the RCMP or CSIS have information to the contrary. I have no desire to discuss the subject with the Syrian government’s ministry of agriculture, department of horticulture and agonizing torment.

OK, there are a few things I probably should clarify. Looking back, I find that on Nov. 26 one of my columns inexplicably contained the words “the need for an inquiry into the Maher Arar case,” which in all honesty looks to me like a typo or perhaps a production error or something. I certainly did not intend as a result of any such remarks that I may have made that there should be an inquiry into me. Continue reading

Putting the public back into health

It is time the government did something about health care. No, not that. It should attend to the real field of public health.

Canada finally does have a minister of public health, Dr. Carolyn Bennett. Regrettably, she just told this newspaper: “I think, as governments, it is our moral responsibility to do whatever we can to help people stay healthy.” I do not know what political philosophy would justify such a dangerously open-ended statement. But even on the charitable assumption that it was mere bombast, it suggests a troubling lack of focus.

The proper concern of public health, a clear core responsibility of government, is diseases and conditions that pose health risks bystanders cannot control. I don’t want to get sidetracked here by the arguments about second-hand smoke that underlay her remarks; all that shouting about consensus, questioning of motives and proposals to meddle in the lives of vulgar persons is too characteristic of politics not science. Continue reading

I liked Mars better when it had canals instead of boring rocks

We’re off to see the Lakebed, the wonderful Lakebed of Mars. It will grant us wealth, culture, scientific insight and … Sorry, wrong movie. On Mars we will find an evil conspiracy to deprive the inhabitants of air, or a fabulous ancient canal-building civilization, or mudmen. Or, just possibly, yet another dull pile of rocks.

NASA gloated that the Spirit rover’s first pictures looked precisely the way scientists had expected a dry rock-strewn lakebed on Mars to look. Unfortunately, as Daily Show host Jon Stewart noted, they also looked precisely the way anyone else would have expected a dry rock-strewn lakebed on Mars to look. Indeed, he said, the Red Planet “practically reaches out to bore you.”

When I say such things my starry-eyed colleagues claim that had my timid views prevailed, Columbus would never have set sail and mankind would still be living in grass huts in eastern Africa. But wouldn’t the same argument apply to going to, say, Jupiter? Sure, it’s a giant ball of poisonous corrosive gases that doesn’t even have a “surface,” though if it did and you landed on it gravity would crush you. But hey, where’s your sense of adventure? I still I say if a caveman had looked out of his grass hut and seen that in the next valley it was raining concentrated, 900-degree Celsius sulphuric acid, beyond which lay a huge vacuum, it is prudence and not timidity that would have deterred him from an exploratory stroll. Continue reading

Here’s something you’ll really like

Do you ever get the feeling you’re being governed by a cartoon moose? If not, consider the federal government’s plans for a biometric national ID card.

In a filler segment in the old Rocky and Bullwinkle show, Bullwinkle the moose would invite his friend Rocky the flying squirrel to watch him pull a rabbit out of a hat. “Oh Bullwinkle, that trick never works,” Rocky would say, and Bullwinkle would invariably and blithely reply “This time for sure” before equally invariably pulling out a lion, a tiger or a rhinoceros. Yet Bullwinkle was no more likely than Canada’s federal government to wonder why his trick kept going wrong.

Suppose you were contemplating a potentially highly intrusive citizen registration project involving more people, more complex technology and more information per card than ever before. What’s the first thing you’d do? Initiate a study group on its relation to the Federal Plan for Gender Equity? Hire 10 expensive consultants to ponder its bilingual aspects? Put out a press release on how it will enhance public health care? Continue reading

There’s a good reason why Canada doesn’t have a headscarf ban

The French government’s decision to ban Muslim headscarves and other prominent religious symbols in schools is a logical extension of their general approach to government. But I don’t mean that in a good way.

Those whose admiration for France is driven primarily by its opposition to American foreign policy need to remember how much ideas matter. I’m not even convinced France’s Greater Europa project is working out all that well. As I’ve said before, I think they’re playing Athens to the wrong Rome. But it must be a particular disappointment that after all their hectoring of Americans for their provocative insensitivity to Islam, their hijab ban (unthinkable in the U.S.) led Canadian Islamic Congress national president Mohamed Elmasry to write that “France recently topped the list of Western human rights violators …”

Why did they do it? Because French opposition to the “Anglo-Saxon model” does not simply consist of gratuitous if futile shots at George W. Bush. It runs much deeper. It offers a half-open society, with free political discussion about what people shall be required to do, not what they shall be allowed to do. Continue reading

A random cat down Wall Street

A cat just won the Montreal Gazette’s professional football pool. And I’m not being catty when I call it a triumph for expertise.

Not, perhaps, for the 11 broadcasters, sportswriters and former pro players the Gazette pitted against editor Lucinda Chodan’s brown tabby Miss Kallie. They seem not to know one important fact: “the line” itself is a triumph of expert opinion and design, a classic case of the spontaneous order created by markets.

Thanks to a mystery novel by former NFL quarterback Fran Tarkenton, I know bookies are not gamblers. They are entrepreneurial middlemen who buy and sell risk without taking it. And as supermarkets do with apples, they try to acquire just enough risk from suppliers to satisfy demand. They don’t care how likely Ol’ Paint is to win a race or even whether he does. They only care that whatever happens, they collect enough from the gamblers who lost to pay off those who won, plus a small fee for themselves. Continue reading

Gad, another year has gone … but where exactly did it go?

Long ago I read in one of those Chump’s Guide to Philosophy books that a philosopher named M’Taggert devoted his career to the subject of time, and my reaction was that he certainly seemed to know a thing or two about wasting it. Eventually, as I aged, I realized he might have been on to something.

I tried asking St. Augustine, to no avail. “What then is time?” he said. “If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.” He’s not alone. We all know there’s something odd about time, but the more we analyze it the less we understand.

Comedian George Carlin says “There’s no present. There’s only the immediate future and the recent past.” OK. I take his point that the present is too ephemeral for us to grasp even briefly (how long is “now”?). But the past exists only in our memories and the future only in our plans. So time clearly does not exist and neither do we, a disquieting conviction that lasts only until some lummox treads on your foot and you are in pain NOW. Continue reading